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Historic Silverstone: From hay bales to high-tech pit and paddock

updated 6:40 AM EDT, Wed July 4, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Silverstone hosts this weekend's British Grand Prix
  • Circuit has had major changes since its debut in 1948
  • Its owners had to battle to stay part of Formula One calendar
  • Major development work has helped secure its future

(CNN) -- Built on a disused World War II airfield, Silverstone has come a long way since Stirling Moss first raced there around oil drums and hay bales more than 60 years ago.

The iconic English circuit has become more than just a venue -- it represents the rich past of British motor racing and is the key to its Formula One future -- though Moss still hankers over the track's old curves and straights which have now been revamped.

"I liked it as an airfield, I must be honest," Moss, who made his Silverstone debut in 1948, told CNN.

Britain has had a race on the Formula One calendar since the championship began in 1950.

After a gap of 21 years, the British Grand Prix returned to the motor racing calendar in October 1948 at Silverstone, which had recently been built on a disused World War II airfield. After a gap of 21 years, the British Grand Prix returned to the motor racing calendar in October 1948 at Silverstone, which had recently been built on a disused World War II airfield.
Humble beginnings
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Silverstone staged it along with Brands Hatch and Aintree before taking it on fulltime from 1987. In the past decade, however, there has been a real danger that the event would be dropped amid public wrangles over money and accusations of a lack of development by F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone.

In 2008 he announced that English rival Donington would take over the race in a decade-long deal, but that collapsed a year later due to lack of funding.

Silverstone stepped back into the breach to secure a 17-year contract from 2010, as its owner -- the British Racing Drivers' Club -- announced a new layout that would welcome motorcycling's elite division, MotoGP.

Last year the new Silverstone Wing was unveiled, a £28 million ($44 million) pit and paddock complex.

"I think now it's a very sophisticated one, but what was essential was getting Bernie Ecclestone's agreement that we could have a long license so we can be sure of keeping the British Grand Prix where it really belongs, at the heart of Silverstone," said Moss, who competed in F1 from 1951-61.

His only two victories in his home race both came at Aintree, while he frequently failed to complete the distance at Silverstone.

"One of the reasons I entered motor racing was because it was dangerous," said the 82-year-old, whose competitive career ended after an accident before the start of the 1962 F1 season.

"Silverstone was one of the really fast circuits. You didn't get hairpins and all that stuff to mess around with. To win the British Grand Prix -- and for so many years the European Grand Prix -- it carries quite a lot of kudos."

Moss' 1957 win, shared with Tony Brooks, was the second occasion the British race had the honorary "European" title. James Hunt's 1977 victory was the last before it became a standalone event, which is now staged in Valencia.

Cars these days are slick, safe machines which still top 200 mph despite speed restrictions. Driver safety is now paramount, following years of driver deaths before improvements were made in the 1970s.

But back In 1948, motorsport was altogether scarier as the drivers raced around part of the perimeter track, up the two former runways head-on and then back to the perimeter.

"You were sitting very, very low, and seeing where the circuit went wasn't that easy at the time," added Moss.

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King Sebastien
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"You had to designate where the circuit was or what part of the circuit you should be on, therefore there were oil drums and straw bales put around -- which, of course, then people would occasionally hit and spin off!"

Watch Stirling Moss recall Silverstone's past

In the 1950s and '60s, raised earth banks were built up to give spectators a better and safer view as the straw bales and drums were packed away.

"In 1990 they did a tremendous amount of revision to the circuit, to make it a bit more sophisticated, a more technical circuit," Moss said.

"I'm not sure I would have liked it, but I'd stopped by then so it didn't matter to me too much!"

In 1991, British driver Nigel Mansell won the race, from pole position, for the third of four times. He famously gave rival Ayrton Senna a ride back to the pits after the Brazilian ran out of fuel on the final lap.

That year Mansell was second in the championship for the third occasion, but went one better in 1992 as he again triumphed at Silverstone for Williams.

"Nigel Mansell's success there was quite a step forward," Moss said. "Nigel's quite a showman as well -- didn't he get off from his lap and kiss the ground or something? -- which all adds a bit of a glow to the place."

This weekend Britain's hopes lay with McLaren's former world champions Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, while Paul Di Resta is an outsider with Force India.

"The British Grand Prix is special because I get a massive boost from all the fans," Hamilton told reporters.

"To me, winning at Silverstone is right up there with winning at Monaco. Standing on the top step of the podium in 2008 was among the sweetest moments of my career."

Button's best finish in his home race is fourth, but the Englishman is struggling to regain the form that won him the world title in 2009 and saw him finish second overall last year.

"I always enjoy racing at home because the atmosphere is unbeatable, and while the race itself hasn't always been too kind to me, I come here every year knowing I can count on the support of the many thousands of fans," he said.

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